News Column

If a nude painting can still shock, we really are moving backwards: Cambridge don's portrait is the latest in a line of challenges to the traditional depiction of nudity

May 18, 2014

Zoe Pilger



"Cambridge don strips off and says it's educational," sneered a headline in the Daily Mail this week. The story referred to a nude portrait of Cambridge economics fellow Victoria Bateman which has gone on display in London's Mall Galleries as part of an exhibition by the Royal Society of Portrait Painters. Commissioned by Bateman in celebration of her own birthday, the portrait was painted by Anthony Connolly.

Rather than being titillating, Bateman wanted the painting to ask questions about the sexualisation of women today. She has written: "At the age of 34, I am comfortable in my own body." Her pose is not provocative: she leans against a blue background, one hand behind her back. Significantly, she is staring back at the viewer. This is a mark of power.

From Velazquez's Rokeby Venus (1647-51) to the grindings of girl-on-girl faux-lesbian porn on the internet, women have been represented in both high and low culture across the centuries as mere objects of male fantasy. Historically, the artist was male and the nude subject was female. The feminist artist-activist group Guerrilla Girls reported that in 2012, less than 5% of the artists in the Modern Art section of New York'sMetropolitan Museum of Art were female, while 85% of the nudes were female. A recent count of the Tate collection revealed that only 4.3% of works are by female artists.

A classic example of the unequal relationship between artist and subject is Giorgione's Sleeping Venus (1510), which is credited as the first painting in western art to depict a nude as the main focal point. While the beauty of Venus is celebrated, she is reclining, passive - indeed asleep. It is a work of highbrow erotica.

In his 1972 book Ways of Seeing, John Berger wrote: "A naked body has to be seen as an object in order to become a nude. (The sight of it as an object stimulates the use of it as an object.)"

The muse was the classical equivalent of the contemporary manic pixie dream girl, the stock Hollywood archetype of a ditzy female free spirit, with no concept of reality, who exists merely to assist the male protagonist on his journey of self-discovery. She sparkles with creative energy but never creates anything herself; instead, she inspires her lover, the artist, who is always a man.

Bateman is her own muse. She has written: "Rather than a sexualised pose, the artist and I worked together to identify a stance that was natural and comfortable. In fact, the pose we decided upon was inherently unflattering."

The nudes that dominate the popular imagination these days do not appear in paintings, however, but in visual media. And the contemporary "nude" par excellence has to be Beyonce: she is never fully naked, but near enough.

In her recent music video, Partition, she lies on a stage in a strip club, filmed from above, her body barely covered by black lingerie. In another shot, she swings around a pole, her husband Jay-Z playing the pimp and watching her. She manages to embody several seemingly contradictory feminine roles: she is sex siren and glowing wife and mother. She is a kind of pornographic saint.

Moreover, it is Beyonce who dictates the terms of her own nudity and has an estimated net worth of $350m. As she sings in another recent song, Flawless: "This my shit, bow down bitches."

Bateman, too, is in control. It is significant that she asserted how she wanted to be seen and, unlike the nameless muse of art history, she is named, and her professional status made clear, on a plaque that accompanies the painting. She points out that "people are often shocked when they realise that the naked image before them is an intelligent woman".

However, Bateman's painting is not revolutionary, in my view. The fact that a Cambridge academic has chosen to pose nude may offer a salacious news story, but the style of the painting is traditional and overall it is nondescript. It doesn't smash through any barriers in artistic terms - but in the super-conservative, patriarchal world of Cambridge University, I imagine that it is quite radical.

This reveals more about Cambridge itself, which operates in a bubble removed from the rest of society though playing a significant part in ruling it. In fact, women were reclaiming the right to their own representation back in the 1960s, when the sight of a naked woman was a matter of top-shelf fervency.

In 1964, the American feminist artist Carolee Schneemann organised Meat Joy, a "happening" that consisted of men and women sliding around naked amid raw meat and blood, expressing unashamed sexual freedom. In the 1990s, French artist Orlan reconfigured her own body in accordance with the ideals of beauty established in classical paintings of women by male artists. She underwent extensive surgery in order to achieve the chin of Botticelli's Venus and the forehead of Da Vinci'sMona Lisa.

If a painting can be scandalous today simply because it shows a woman in a pose that does not invite sex, we truly have gone back in time. Thankfully the new wave of feminism is coming to change that.

Captions:

Victoria Bateman says she worked with the artist to find a pose that was natural, comfortable and not sexual. Francesca Oldfield/Spinephotographic


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Source: Observer (UK)


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